Former Scientist-Astronaut Dr. William E. Thornton donates papers to the State Archives of North Carolina

[This blog post comes from Special Projects Archivist Ken Dasher.]

Dr. William Thornton recently donated his papers to the State Archives as a new private collection designated PC.2054.  Dr. Thornton grew up in the small town of Faison, North Carolina where he became interested in radio and electronics.  He majored in physics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Upon graduation, William Thornton was commissioned as an officer in the Air Force where he helped develop the radar intercept systems used in air-to-air combat.  While serving in the Air Force, William Thornton developed a professional relationship with Del Mar Avionics that would continue throughout his career in the military and at NASA.  Del Mar Avionics has graciously provided grant funds to the Archives to prepare Dr. Thornton’s papers for research.

By the mid-1960s, William Thornton decided to pursue another of his interests—medicine, particularly bringing electronics into the field.  While still in medical school at the University of North Carolina, he began developing the first computer to read EKG telemetry.  After graduating, Dr. Thornton went back into the Air Force where he began work in space medicine.  Dr. Thornton joined NASA in 1967 and served on the astronaut support crew for the Skylab 2, 3, and 4 missions.  Dr. Thornton was a principal investigator for Skylab experiments in mass measurement, anthropometrics, and physical conditioning.  Dr. Thornton is a veteran of two spaceflights, STS-8 in 1983 and STS-51B in 1985, both on board the Challenger space shuttle.  After these missions, Dr. Thornton continued his work in space medicine, working on problems relative to extending mission durations.

On October 4 and 5, 2012 Dr. Thornton met with Kenneth Dasher to explain the technical aspects of his papers.  The papers housed at the State Archives cover Dr. Thornton’s professional career.  Dr. Thornton showed Mr. Dasher how to read radar imagery in relation to its matching optical photographs.  He also explained the purpose and outcomes of his pursuits in space medicine.  Dr. Thornton’s papers consist of photographs, film, papers, and patents relating to his work with the Air Force and NASA as well as his work during medical school.  Mr. Dasher was grateful for the opportunity to learn from Dr. Thornton so that his professional papers could be properly arranged and described into a finding aid for research.